Leading the charge in biology’s new frontiers

| March 25, 2013

Raina Robeva, professor of mathematical sciences at Sweet Briar College. Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan.

This is the final story in our series honoring Women’s History Month and this year’s theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

Raina Robeva has always appreciated applied mathematics in biology. It’s what she did when modeling the effects of radiation on cell cultures for her master’s degree at Sofia University in Bulgaria. As a doctoral candidate in the U.S., she’d hoped to earn her Ph.D. in mathematical biology, but discovered few programs recognized the discipline.

That has changed since she completed her doctorate in mathematics at the University of Virginia in 1997. Today, mathematical biology is a legitimate subfield in many Ph.D. programs and educators are rethinking the way biology is taught at all levels, including undergraduate programs.

In 2003 the National Research Council issued a report, followed by another in 2009 titled “A New Biology for the 21st Century.” The papers formally recognize what Robeva and a handful of other mathematicians, scientists and educators already believed: traditional biology curricula don’t provide adequate training in mathematical sciences to prepare students for technological advances occurring in life science research.

Robeva began teaching at Sweet Briar 1996 and became a full professor in 2008. For much of that time, she has focused her research on closing this gap by developing course materials and organizing workshops to teach biology and mathematics faculty to use them. She has become a recognized leader in the effort to transform undergraduate education in biology.

Most recently, she is the lead editor and co-author of “Mathematical Concepts and Methods in Modern Biology Using Modern Discrete Models.” The book is a collaboration with several colleagues in the math and biology departments at Sweet Briar and her co-editor, Terrell L. Hodge, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Western Michigan University. It also contains contributions by authors from other institutions.

Released in January, it is the final product of a 2007 National Science Foundation grant for $150,000 on which Robeva served as the principal investigator, with Sweet Briar biology professor Robin Davies and Hodge as co-PIs. It is not a traditional textbook, but rather a collection of modules that can be taught independently of one another so they can be “dropped” into existing courses.

The book focuses on teaching algebraic approaches to solving contemporary problems in biology. This is abstract or “modern” algebra, nothing like the kind you remember from high school, Robeva says. Abstract algebra uses discrete mathematical structures as opposed to calculus, or continuous mathematics, which was added to many undergraduate biology courses in response to the National Research Council’s 2003 report. Robeva’s interest now is pushing beyond calculus.

Biology spurs advances in mathematics

One isn’t better than the other, she explains, but together they provide scientists with more tools to choose from.

“Biology is progressing at such a huge speed it generates problems that are interesting, dynamic and difficult mathematically,” she says.

“So mathematicians are trying to meet the challenge and develop tools to answer the questions that biologists are asking. The speculation is that what physics did for mathematics in the seventeenth century when calculus was developed to answer some questions in physics, now the same thing is happening with biology and probably new mathematical fields are going to come out of it. So it’s a really exciting time to be in this field.”

Admittedly, modern algebra gets into the “scary” math, says Professor Davies, where biologists haven’t always been happy to tread. But as with the introduction of calculus 10 years ago, they see the value of new computational methods. Progress is slow, however.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an equation in a general intro biology textbook,” Davies says. “That hasn’t changed in a decade and we thought that it would.”

Davies accepted Robeva’s invitation to support her research from the beginning, and their collective efforts with another math professor, Jim Kirkwood, resulted in Sweet Briar adding a course in biomathematics in 2002 — before it became the thing to do. More recently, botanist Janet Steven and statistician Bessie Kirkwood have joined the effort. All of them contributed to the newly published book.

Davies is a cell molecular biologist whose responsibilities include advising pre-health students. She got involved in the biomath project when Robeva showed her a mechanism for mathematically converting and analyzing blood glucose readings. The formula was ultimately built into a monitor to warn diabetics of an impending low-blood sugar event.

“That got me hooked — the fact that math could be used to winkle out the information that was in the dataset already. People collect their blood glucose data several times a day, every day, so the data was available but it wasn’t until the mathematicians figured out how to get that information out of the data that it became valuable.”

And “New Biology” is generating massive amounts of data through research that impacts all of us — in health, food, energy and the environment.

The next step is integrating the new course materials into curricula across the country and at Sweet Briar. It’s difficult, particularly at a small institution where it can be hard to add new topics without sacrificing something else.

Paradoxically, teaching at Sweet Briar enabled Robeva to pursue her interest in mathematical biology. Small liberal arts colleges often allow faculty to go their own way in research and support them in doing so.

“Faculty grants here at Sweet Briar have been fantastic,” Robeva says, noting she was able to start small and build up to larger grants from private sources, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

She and her colleagues from three other institutions hope to hear soon from the NSF on a $600,000 proposal to follow up on the $150,000 grant Sweet Briar just completed. If accepted, the money will be used to implement the new materials and concepts at the four schools, in addition to developing more coursework. Another book will likely result as well.

Even without the $600,000, Robeva hopes to find ways to use the new book in existing courses at Sweet Briar, and enhance the curriculum from the results of the initial grant.

Turning the tide

Meanwhile she, Davies and Hodge are organizing their third Professional Enhancement Program this summer at Sweet Briar. “Mathematical Biology: Beyond Calculus” will be held July 14-19 for math and biology professors from across the country. The Mathematical Association of America funds the workshop.

They’ll present the topics and projects from the textbook and the publisher’s companion website. Feedback from two previous workshops in 2010 and 2011 was instrumental in helping them test the materials as they were developing them for the book.

Robeva and Hodge, along with Matt Macauley of Clemson University,  are organizing an international summer workshop at Ohio State for the NSF-funded Mathematical Biosciences Institute. It, too, will be used to develop new materials.

Robeva is the lead author on a previous biomathematics textbook and lab manual. In 2009 she became the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Frontiers in Systems Biology, which now features more than 250 researchers from leading academic and industry institutions around the world. It recently increased its reach again after merging with another journal.

Robeva also co-authored an opinion piece in Science magazine in 2009 making the case for algebraic approaches to biology. Finally, she is past chair of the Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America on Mathematical and Computational Biology and a member of the advisory board of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

Each position provides insight, whether from the teaching, research or political perspective — and influence on the direction of mathematical biology.

“I’m feeling pretty good about where I am and I’m having a lot of fun,” she says.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Biology, Mathematical Science, Women's History Month